Brewers have crowded bullpen, but little room

The Milwaukee Brewers have plenty of major-league caliber relievers in spring training camp this year. However, there are only a precious few spots on the big-league roster. In fact, just two.

Manager Craig Counsell has said there are six bullpen roles all but locked up. With the Brewers planning on carrying eight relievers early in the season — and likely throughout — that leaves just two openings for the roughly 14 pitchers trying to stick around for opening day.

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Matt Albers, Jacob Barnes, Josh Hader, Jeremy Jeffress, Corey Knebel and Boone Logan all appear to be safe for the trip back to Milwaukee. Hader and Logan will give Counsell two quality lefties in the pen from the get-go, something he hasn’t really had in his brief stint as manager.

That could be bad news for Wade Miley and Brent Suter, two lefties trying to crack the rotation but also seen as candidates for the bullpen if they aren’t among the five starters.

Miley is also one of a number of non-roster players hoping to make the club. Michael Brady, Erik Davis, Ernesto Frieri, J.J. Hoover and Radhames Liz are all right-handed relievers in camp not on the 40-man roster who have major-league experience.

Frieri and Hoover have the longer MLB resumes, and perhaps a leg up on their competition. Both tossed a scoreless inning in their first spring training games.

“I find myself interested in guys who had dominant major-league seasons and he had a dominant major-league season,” Counsell said of Frieri, who struck out 13.4 batters and allowed just 4.8 hits per nine innings combined with the Padres and Angels in 2012. “It’s in there. The strikeout rate was really high. So we thought there were some signs that things were coming back last year, and that’s where our interest lies.”

Hoover had a couple of nice years in Cincinnati, posting a 2.86 ERA, 1.106 WHIP and 9.1 K/9 in 2013 and 2.94 ERA and 1.166 ERA in 2015.

There’s also the possibility that Yovani Gallardo and Junior Guerra, right-handed starters on the 40-man roster who, like Miley and Suter, could get moved to the bullpen if they don’t crack the rotation. Ditto prospects Aaron Wilkerson and Brandon Woodruff, both of whom pitched for Milwaukee in September last season.

Having an option — or not — could also play a role in who make the 25-man roster.

Oliver Drake, who pitched in 61 games for the Brewers last season after being acquired from Baltimore and struck out 10.0 batters per nine innings, has no minor-league options remaining, meaning he’d have to be placed on waivers if Milwaukee wanted to send him down.

Tyler Webb and Taylor Williams, both of whom made a few appearances for the Brewers in 2017, have two options remaining, as do Suter and Woodruff. Wilkerson has all three options left.

“When we say it’s a competition, we all know a lot of things play into that decision,” Counsell said. “It’s not all on the field. There’s other factors that influence it.”

Of course, just because a pitcher makes the roster for opening day doesn’t mean there won’t be others who make the big club later. Youngsters such as Corbin Burnes, the organization’s Minor League Pitcher of the Year in 2017 and Freddy Peralta are in camp for good reason — they are close to being ready for the majors and Counsell said both could help the Brewers at some point in 2018.

As Counsell has noted, no team has ever not used injured reserve over the course of a season. And then there’s other moves, from replacing someone who is struggling to bringing up a fresh arm to making a trade with another organization.

Right now, looking around at all the good arms in camp, Counsell likes the situation Milwaukee is in with just over a month to go before the start of the season.

“We went through a stretch last season where we were very concerned about our bullpen,” he said. “Then we acquired Anthony Swarzak at the trade deadline and our bullpen really did become the strength of our team. We will have Josh Hader for the entire season this year, we’ve added some veteran pieces in Boone Logan and Matt Albers, we added Jeremy Jeffress (late in 2017), so I think we’re more than first two years that I’ve been here, we’re more settled in the bullpen for the first time.”

But there will still have to be decisions made — tough decisions — to pare down the bullpen from its inflated number to eight. Don’t expect any moves soon, but after a couple of weeks of spring training games some things will start taking shape.

“The fourth time around you have to make some decisions and cut some things back … you run out of innings,” Counsell said.  “That’s at least two weeks of games before we have to make some decisions.”

Let the competition begin.

Dave Heller is the author of Ken Williams: A Slugger in Ruth’s Shadow (a Larry Ritter Book Award nominee), Facing Ted Williams – Players From the Golden Age of Baseball Recall the Greatest Hitter Who Ever Lived and As Good As It Got: The 1944 St. Louis Browns